Bill would allow recipients of disability aid to work

Clinton hails measure that could put millions of disabled back on the job

November 21, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- An estimated 2 million disabled Americans sidelined from their jobs could opt to rejoin the work force without fear of losing federal health benefits under a bill hailed by President Clinton yesterday.

In his weekly radio address, Clinton called the legislation the most significant milestone for the disabled since the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

The Work Incentives Improvement Act was overshadowed by the conclusion of debate on federal spending and the rush of Congress to adjourn for the year. But some say it may emerge as a sleeper -- one of the most tangible achievements in an otherwise unremarkable legislative year.

The bill, which Congress sent to Clinton on Friday, aims to solve a dilemma posed by advances in medicine and quirks in federal entitlement law.

More and more people with severe disabilities are getting treatment -- subsidized by Medicaid or Medicare -- that enables them to consider returning to work. Yet if they take a job, they risk losing the health benefits that helped them recover their economic potential.

The legislation would attack this Catch-22 through a combination of benefits, incentives and regulatory relief that would cost about $800 million over five years. Among the people most likely to take advantage of the new programs, administration officials say, are those with muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and AIDS.

"This is a big deal" for 9 million working-age Americans receiving federal disability benefits, said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate's health and labor committee. "Not all of them are able or wanting to go back to work, but a good many will."

Disability advocates have said that as many as 2 million disabled people could go back to work under the legislation -- which could also be a boon to employers in the current tight labor market.

More than many other acts of Congress, this bill "has a human face," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Friday.

In an emotional speech to the Senate, Kennedy said that Congress was helping "Alice in Oklahoma," who has multiple sclerosis and now can get a job; and "Abby in Massachusetts," a young girl with a developmental disability who needs Medicaid because private health insurers won't cover her.

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